Happiness and sanity are an impossible combination, Mark Twain once remarked. Fortunately, a new study suggests, happiness and healthy blood pressure make better bedfellows. The authors, both economists, found a strong inverse correlation between reported rates of hypertension and well-being in 16 European countries. Nations whose citizens report the highest levels of satisfaction with their lives (Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden) also report the lowest incidence of high blood pressure, while countries with the lowest rates of happiness (Italy, Portugal, Germany) suffer elevated rates of high blood pressure. Nearly half the respondents in countries with the lowest hypertension rates pronounced themselves very satisfied with life, while less than a quarter of respondents in countries with the highest blood pressure said the same. The authors caution that they don’t have a good explanation for the link between the two sets of data. But they argue that as governments look to develop policies that expand well-being rather than wealth, they should factor blood pressure into their calculations.
—“Hypertension and Happiness Across Nations,” David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, National Bureau of Economic Research
In April, tens of thousands of Pakistanis protested in the streets of Karachi after an Islamic cleric, the head of one of the country’s many madrasas (religious schools), called for the government to impose Islamic law throughout the coun-try. According to a new report by the International Crisis Group on madrasas and violence in Pakistan’s largest city, the protesters had reason to be worried. Since 9/11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly promised to crack down on the madrasas that train new generations of would-be jihadists, but his rhetoric has produced little action. Each promise has been “invariably followed by retreat,” states the report, and five years after his government launched the ambitious Madrasa Reform Project, the effort is “in shambles”: Mosques and madrasas are training and exporting fighters to Afghanistan and Kashmir, illegally seizing land to expand their sway over urban neighborhoods, and calling for jihad and sectarian violence. In Karachi, which may be home to more than 1,000 madrasas, suicide attacks in 2006 killed a U.S. diplomat, the country’s most prominent Shia political leader, and the entire leadership of a Sunni militant group. The report recommends that Musharraf follow through on his pledge to crack down on extremism, though it acknowledges the political risks: National elections are coming up this fall, and he depends on religious voters for much of his political support. But without meaningful change in the country’s educational system, the report warns, “the madrasas and the violent extremism they encourage are likely to become even more powerful.”
—“Pakistan: Karachi’s Madrasas and Violent Extremism,” International Crisis Group
For avian-flu watchers, the pandemic of 1918 shows what a new outbreak could mean for the world, but a study published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it may also offer lessons on how to contain avian flu. The U.S. doesn’t have enough vaccine to counter an outbreak, but the report argues that there’s more to readiness than vaccine stockpiles. The authors looked at “nonpharmaceutical interventions”—closing schools and movie theaters, banning public gatherings, quarantining infected households—used in 17 U.S. cities in 1918, and found a strong correlation between aggressive NPIs and lower transmission rates. Timing mattered, too: Cities that put multiple restrictions on their citizens early in the epidemic had peak death rates as much as 50 percent lower than cities that waited longer or never imposed any restrictions. The study also points out that cities that imposed NPIs suffered a second wave of infection once the restrictions were relaxed; had the restrictions been in place for more than eight weeks (the longest most cities imposed them), death rates might have been even lower.
—“Public Health Interventions and Epidemic Intensity During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” R. Hatchett, C. Mecher, and M. Lipsitch, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Although we live in the information age, a new Pew Research Center study suggests that the American public is no better informed than it was before round-the-clock cable news and the Internet invaded our homes. After surveying more than 1,500 Americans to find out where they get their information and how much they know about current affairs, researchers concluded that Americans “are about as aware of major news events” as they have been for the last two decades. More people today know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is conservative than did in 1989, for instance, but fewer know that the United States has a trade deficit. Half the country can identify Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House, whereas in 1989 just 14 percent could correctly identify Tom Foley as the speaker; on the other hand, Americans today have more trouble identifying the U.S. vice president and the Russian president than they did in the era of Dan Quayle and Boris Yeltsin. The most knowledgeable Americans were those who got their news from the Web sites of major papers and those who watched programs like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show; they correctly answered 54 percent of the questions about current affairs, while regular viewers of local TV news and network morning shows got only about 35 percent right. The survey found that there isn’t necessarily a trade-off between hard-news knowledge and pop-culture savvy: Respondents who demonstrated a “high” knowledge of politics and world events were also adept at identifying celebrities such as Beyoncé Knowles. And while it’s hard to know which sources provide the best information, the report notes that well-informed people gather their news from an average of 7.0 sources—more than the average of 4.6.